I Owe Much of My Opportunities, Privilege, and Rights to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Those Who Struggled for Civil Rights

Photo by J. Amill Santiago on Unsplash

Growing up, Dr. King was frequently spoken of in my home. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and I was born July 4, 1970, so his death in relation to my birth was probably at the front of my mom’s and grandma’s minds as I was the first mixed kid in the family. My mom and grandma revered him, and my birth was part of the hope of a nation emerging out of the Civil Rights Movement. As a mixed Black kid, people saw me and people like me as a symbol of the end of racism. In many ways, this was a misinterpretation of Dr. King’s August 1963 I Have a Dream speech where he hoped that his kids “would not be judged on the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He did not mean we would all become beige or not see color, race, or ethnicity but that we could all live together in peace and equitably share in the resources and opportunities of this great land. 

I suppose it was easy for people to view mixed kids like me as embodiments of a more racially just future. Just three years before my birth in 1967, Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage nationally. Prior to that, being born to a white mother like mine, I would have been evidence of a crime for which my father could have been violently punished or even murdered. Emmett Till was lynched for less. 

Richard and Mildred Loving fell in love – she Black, he white. They left their Virginia town and got married in Washington DC. Upon returning to Virginia, they were both criminalized and jailed for being married because the Virginia Jim Crow law prohibited interracial marriage –anti-miscegenation laws were prevalent in most states across the nation, including Washington State until 1888 – still, the majority of the states enforced these laws through 1967. So, my birth and the births of other mixed Black kids were legitimated and viewed as heralding in a new era of racial equality.

Consequently, the Loving v. Virginia decision rests on the same legal framework as Roe v. Wade that was repealed in 2022 by the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health OrganizationLoving and Roe both rest on the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. In fact, most of our racial, LGBT, and other reproductive rights rest upon the same legal framework and many were pointed to by Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion to the Dobbs decision. Thomas pointed specifically to Griswold v. ConnecticutLawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges as cases needing judicial review for possible overturning. Look those cases up, learn what they are about. 

During Jim Crow, Black people (and most other people of color) were separated from White people. Jim Crow laws dictated when, where, and how Black people could travel, be educated (and in some cases, the textbooks that could be used in our education). Jim Crow laws governed where we could work (and how much we could be paid), where we could swim (even dividing a lake or river into a Black and White side), where we could get medical care, where we could be buried. Jim Crow laws went so far as to dictate what types of fabrics our clothing could be made from. Basically, Jim Crow dictated EVERY aspect of Black life. In fact, the Nazi’s modeled much of their Jewish restrictions on our Jim Crow laws AND thought the laws went to far. And Jim Crow laws were in the vast majority of states, even the Northern states and the Pacific Northwest. 

This Jim Crow violence is what Black people returned to after their distinguished service in the United States armed forces following WWII. An important thing to know, is that Black people have fought in every single war this country has had, including the Revolutionary War. They returned, wearing their uniforms proudly, holding their heads up, to a land and a people that refused to see them as fully human, worthy of the same civil rights and liberties as white people. Men wearing their uniforms in public were received with violence, up to and including lynching because the communities they returned to thought these young people were thinking too highly of themselves. Many GIs recognized the hypocrisy of fighting and dying for a country that did not protect or love them and started agitating for equal treatment. This kicked off the Civil Rights Movement that many of us attribute to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he became the de facto leader of the Movement. However, Dr. King was one man of many humans struggling for racial equity.

So, back to how my life and opportunity are due, in large part, to Dr. King’s work. 

I’m of the Loving generation. I am also the first generation of Black people born in this country who was born with their full civil rights. And while the run up to the Loving decision isn’t attributed to Dr. King but to the larger struggle for civil rights, civil and voting rights are directly tied to Dr. King’s work and legacy. He and the people with him fought for legal civil rights, including voting rights. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. This law banned segregation nationally based on race, religion, or national origin in places of public accommodation – courthouses, schools, restaurants, theaters, hotels, etc. It also banned discrimination based on race, gender, and national origin by employers and labor unions and forbade the use of federal funds for any discriminatory programs. Interestingly, in the 1920s and again in the 1950s state governments and the national government invested public tax dollars into building public swimming pools. Yet, because of segregation, Black people could not use the pools. Many things happened to get the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP) involved, Black children died by drowning and many other things happened that led to the NAACP suing cities for these things and demanding the pools be integrated. However, many cities privatized the public pools or filled them in when they were forced to integrate. Remember this little story about public tax dollars because this is a recurrent theme in the history of the struggle for racial equality.

The telltale sign of civil rights is the right to vote. In fact, many scholars argue that this country could not be considered a democracy prior to 1965 because the only people guaranteed their voting rights from the Constitutional beginning of this country in 1776 were white land-owning men. So, when the Voting Rights Act became law, it granted Black people, and all people of color, as well as all women the right to vote. You’ll often hear that there has been 100 years of women’s suffrage, which is a bit of a fallacy. While white women got the right to vote in 1921, Black and Brown women were not guaranteed their full voting rights nationwide until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This was Dr. King’s work, who said in his Give Us the Ballot address delivered in May of 1957:

  • Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.
  • Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. [Here, King is talking about the Ku Klux Klan, the first domestic terrorist organization of this country.]
  • Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.
  • Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a “Southern Manifesto” because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice. 
  • Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.
  • Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954. [Here, King is talking about Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, declaring that separate education is inherently not equal.]

In 1954 the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was decided, outlawing segregated education nationwide. As a result of that decision, by the time I was born, I could attend adequately funded schools with my white peers. This decision was about having equitable resources, because prior to the Brown decision Black families lived under double taxation. Their tax dollars were collected like everyone else, but 80-90% of the tax dollars collected went to fund white schools. Black schools during segregation received hand-me-downs for textbooks and other materials from the white schools. And those hand-me-downs often came with racist messages for the Black children. The double taxation meant that Black families pooled their money to build schools, hire and pay teachers and school administrators, and buy textbooks. And still, after the Brown decision, many schools did not integrate. Some counties in Southern states shuttered their public schools (Prince Edward County in Virginia shuttered their public schools for 5-years). Instead, they created white segregation academies. Some schools in South Carolina, for example, did not integrate until the 2000’s. There are some schools in Northern states that have not integrated. 

There are many aspects of my life, liberty, freedoms, and civil rights that I owe to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, he left us all a legacy from his many writings and speeches, beyond just his I Have a Dream Speech. Because your generation is inheriting a complex, fragmented, and politically divisive society, I want to challenge you all to make a difference in your lives, communities, and our great state and nation in small and big ways. In the Rediscovering Lost Values speech Dr. King gave in 1954, he said: “There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally and basically wrong. I don’t think we have to look too far to see that.” He goes on to say: “our moral genius lags behind…we haven’t learned how to be just and honest and kind and true and loving. The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood…the real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness.” Over the last many years, we have born witness to monstrous behavior by some of our neighbors, community members, and citizens aimed at different groups of people – people of color, immigrants, religious minorities, LGBT people, and of course Black people. 

If Dr. King were alive today, he’d ask us all to get and stay involved in ensuring that civil rights that were won just before my birth continue to be upheld and enforced for the next generations. He’d ask that we stay civically engaged and exercise our right to vote. So many people gave their lives for the struggles I have touched upon today. Blood was shed for us to realize the brilliance and beauty of democracy. As we have seen over the last couple of years, democracy is fragile, it’s never fully secure, and it’s won with each new generation. 

So while there is something fundamentally wrong with the world you are all set to inherit, there is much work to be done and we all have a role to play. How can we create unity within a complex world where our differences sometimes seem so vast? Here are my suggestions for about how you can grow your moral and spiritual genius:

  1. Learn – Learn as much as you can about history, the rest of the world, people different from yourself. Learn from members of different communities. Try to see life through other people’s eyes. Try to understand how they experience things. Go outside of your comfort zone to experience new things. You are lucky, you have many college campuses in town and community organizations that host many different cultural events, talks, movies, musical performances, plays, and more. Attend some of those functions. We all have to reach outside of ourselves and our comfort zones to expand our thinking.
  2. Keep an open mind and heart. If your mind is open, then there are no limits to what you can do and where you can go. Try to see the world with a sense of wonder, excitement, and curiosity. Open your heart. Have compassion for others whose experiences you might not understand.
  3. Listen with intensity. Sometimes we need to just be silent and listen, listen intently to people, without thinking of our response, without interrupting with some piece of conversation, we have to listen. This type of listening is about being present in the moment, it is hard to do, and each time you practice it, you will get better at doing it.
  4. Stand up and speak out against injustice. Just like I know many of you have stood up to someone picking on a classmate, a sibling, or a friend, you must carry this attentiveness with you throughout your lives and always be ready to stand up and speak out. When we stop standing up and speaking out, our moral and spiritual genius begins to fade. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. What we want for ourselves, we must want for them as well.
  5. Approach all that you do with love in your heart. If you hold love in your heart as you do your work, as you meet new people, as you experience new things – you will go further than you can dream. Love lifts others and by lifting others, you too are lifted. Love creates space where none existed before. Love breaks down barriers and allows bridges to be built. And finally, with love in your heart, the choices you make will be made for useful reasons.

Dr. King believed in the power of love, “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that; hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said, “Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

Through love, we honor the people who gave everything to win civil rights and liberties for all of us and ensure these rights and liberties are here for the next generation. 

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